Last Saturday evening, a small boy, 3 years and 3 months, wandered onto a rooftop where the four members of Ethic (Seska, Zilla, Rekless and Swat) were seated beneath a pavilion umbrella.
“Si nyinyi na wale daktari?” the boy asked – and without further ado, burst into song.
“Nimekucheki zamani/ juu unatoka na ndani/ unadunga daktari/ bazu, big man, bazu,” then hollered the climatic line at the top of his little voice,
“BIG BANG BANG BANG, BABOON ...”
When small children can recite your songs the way they do nursery rhymes, and this Seska assured me they do (even if in the remix), then your lyrics have truly entered the national lexicon.
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It’s hard to believe that it is just two years ago, on the last day of May 2018, that Ethic uploaded their estate/hood-made video (complete with boys sucking lollipops and hood gals twerking on tires) Lamba Lolo onto YouTube and both changed - perhaps even, rescued - Kenyan music.
“Lamba Lolo ilikuwa tu for fun,” Boniface Mwangi, the baby-faced boy called Swat (as opposed to the baby-faced activist and ex-Pulse photographer) tells us.
“In fact nilikuwa Form 3 April holidays tuki-shoot hiyo video,” he adds.
So not serious were they, says Thomas MacDonald (who was then a hip-hop artiste in the estate) that he changed his name to ‘Rekless’ just for the ‘careless’ song, intending to revert to his stage name – Cray Tom – once it had flopped on YouTube, and sank into the millions of videos that lie there – unviewed, unloved, unknown ... and anonymous. (Incognitube dedicates itself to least viewed music groups like ‘BlueMoon’ whose ‘songs’ seldom get a thousand views, or a random ‘news’ channel called Koox that attacks meat-eaters with stories like ‘Goose was Murdered.’)
Instead, what started as a laugh turned into a video that had clocked a million views within months. Indeed, DJ Katta, Ghetto Radio presenter – and the official Ethic DJ – recalls how his boss, awed, came to him with the video of the song and asked how such a cheaply-made, an inexpensive video was making such waves, and numbers, across the nation.
(At the time of writing, Lamba Lolo is at 4,490,699 views, half a million shy of five million). The answer, Peter Njau, better known as Zilla, believes, is that their music is organic, authentic and speaks to “reality”, especially for the youth, who are of course the majority in the country.
According to current statistics, there are 4,398,554 thousand males and 4,411,586 females (numbers that correspond to their YouTube video views per single) aged between 15 and 24 in Kenya, or almost 20 per cent of the total population.
“After 18,” says John Mbugua, Ethic’s ex-Starehe manager, “only a minority will access higher education, and of those who do, only a quarter will find employment before age 25.”
Therein seems to be the core reason of Ethic’s phenomenal success in both viewership and listenership – an idle or under/unemployed youth across Kenya, but with access to both smartphones and YouTube, who can relate to the escapism and angst of Ethic.
Especially when delivered in the stretched out lazy drawl of the glaze-eyed, dreadlocked Rekless.
So where did they meet to create the chemistry that would become Ethic?
“Reckless and Zilla were running a movie-and-music store in the mtaa (Umoja), and because they were both talented in music since their schooldays, they would just fool around with cyphers jioni. Then there was this kid, Swat aka Mtoto wa Yunis/Eunice who would drop in,” Adrian Adwera, their hype-man, explains.
Eventually, the three were joined by the dreamy-eyed, light skinned lad with side-whiskers called Seska, who himself spat rhymes like a Ceska pistol, and they decided to try make club-bangers.
It must be recalled by all that by mid-2018, secular Kenyan music had been dead, or at least.